AFI Fest Review: ‘HAPPY END’ – Unfunny Games

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

HAPPY END

Rated R, 107 minutes
Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Isabelle HuppertJean-Louis TrintignantMathieu Kassovitz, Fantine Harduin, Laura Verlinden and Franz Rogowski

Filmmaker Michael Haneke is a provocateur. He gets off on toying with audience emotions. And he doesn’t seem the least bit invested in the concept of “likability.” Never is this more abundantly clear than in HAPPY END. Wildly inaccessible from the jump (thanks to the hamster murder), this indictment of the European bourgeoisie doesn’t do much but frustrate. Whatever the filmmaker intended to express winds up as an aimless, pointless waste of time and resources.

The Laurent family is bit of a mess, but you’d never be able to tell thanks to their superficial appearances. An accident at one of their worksites kicks off the shenanigans that ensue. Teen Eve (Fantine Harduin) is going through puberty and a bout of grief after the accidental overdosing of her comatose mother. She moves in with her father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), stepmother Anaïs (Laura Verlinden) and baby stepbrother. Thomas is engaging in lewd chats online with another woman. Eve’s aunt Anne (Isabelle Huppert) is looking to hand off some of the family’s corporate responsibilites to her spoiled slacker son Pierre (Franz Rogowski). She’s also dating the family lawyer (Toby Jones). And the real patriarch of the clan, Eve’s dementia-suffering grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), is ready to die with a modicum of dignity even though the rest of the family has made sure he lives a pampered life.

Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Toby Jones, Mathieu Kassovitz, Laura Verlinden, and Fantine Harduin in HAPPY END. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

It’s clear that Haneke’s commentary is that the culture of social media obsessives is turning future generations into uncaring, unfeeling sociopaths. Not only does the film open on Eve filming her mom’s bedtime routine on a non-descript app, later Eve is glued to an obnoxious YouTube video.  However, this unsurprising observation elicits little more than an over-the-top eye roll. Same goes for his diagnosis of teen girls – which is mostly a satirical slap in their faces. Most teen girls don’t go around killing harmless animals, but thanks for playing Haneke. Shots of computer screens are unimaginative and excruciatingly dull. If you couldn’t stand Kristen Stewart texting on her phone through half of PERSONAL SHOPPER (I was not one of those people), this will surely rankle your impatient nerves.

The lone scene that stands out as having any purpose is when grandpa Georges confesses to Eve that he killed his terminally ill wife in their apartment. Trintignant and Harduin are electric together as they actually engage with each other like relatives do. Haneke manages to scrape poignancy and resonance from their conversation. (Plus it hints at a possibly-shared universe with AMOUR, which also has a character named Georges played by the same actor.) While the majority of the scenes are snapshots of this family’s dynamic, none of these characters really have substantial conversations with each other – and if they do, it’s insipid. Anne going to Pierre’s apartment to coddle him is a time suck. Thankfully the reflexive material bounces back with a bonkers karaoke rendition of Sia’s “Chandelier” replete with drunken gymnastics. The climax of the Laurent family’s hijinks and hilarity would’ve been good had it not felt so exploitative.

It’s probably Haneke’s intent that we’re supposed to hate these people. He doesn’t apologize for their behavior, nor should he. Yet he stands in full judgment of their despicableness, celebrating them at their worst. Why should we be forced to celebrate the worst of wealthy white entitlement? Don’t we do enough of that in the real world? And if this is meant to turn the mirror on those people he’s lampooning, would they even be self-aware enough to realize it? Highly unlikely.

Grade: D

HAPPY END plays AFI Fest on November 15 and 16. It opens in limited release on December 22.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.